Updated May 4, 2007 at 5:58 a.m.
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Steamboat Springs A judge has affirmed his decision that the Steamboat Springs School Board did not violate the law during a meeting in January, as the Steamboat Pilot & Today alleged.
The newspaper asked visiting Senior Judge Thomas Ossola to reconsider his original ruling in a lawsuit the newspaper filed in February. In a decision issued this week, Ossola did acknowledge that he erred in his original ruling when he ordered the newspaper to pay the School Board's attorney fees. He amended his judgment to lift that requirement. Ossola made his original ruling in March.
"I'm pleased the judge abided by his original decision," School Board President Denise Connelly said. "I think it was fair. We follow state statutes when we go into executive sessions."
Connelly added the newspaper's handling of the lawsuit combined with other recent actions borders on harassment of the school district.
Denver attorney Chris Beall, who is representing the newspaper in the lawsuit, said awarding the attorney fees to the School Board was improper because Ossola determined there was reasonable cause to review tapes of the board's Jan. 8 secret session.
"We brought to his attention several issues we felt he had overlooked, one issue being the attorney fees," Beall said.
The lawsuit focuses on a Jan. 8 meeting at which the School Board entered into executive session to discuss a personnel matter regarding "access to information." Before the session began, school administrators asked that the topic be discussed in public. When the board moved to go into executive session anyway, Board Member Pat Gleason refused to participate, noting the administrators' request.
The newspaper argued the School Board violated the Open Meetings Law by not properly announcing the executive session and asked the School Board to release audiotapes of the session. The School Board denied the newspaper's request for the tapes, arguing it did nothing wrong. The newspaper responded by filing its lawsuit.
The board argued the executive session was about Superintendent Donna Howell, not the administrators, and that her decision to participate in the session was acknowledgement that she knew the session was about her. Following the executive session, the board directed Howell to give board members copies of surveys filled out anonymously by district staff about district administrators.
During a March hearing, Ossola agreed to listen to the tapes. After reviewing them, he ruled that the board did nothing wrong during the executive session. He did not address how the session was announced in either his original ruling or in his reconsideration.
"I'm disappointed that he did not address our contention that the School Board did not properly announce this executive session," said Bryna Larsen, Pilot & Today publisher. "At the heart of the case is our belief that public boards must work to follow the Colorado Open Meetings Law. We're simply asking the School Board to do so and firmly believe they have fallen down on this task."
Connelly criticized the newspaper for its tactics during settlement negotiations. She said the newspaper's lawsuit and open records requests are unnecessarily costing the taxpayers money.
"I think the newspaper's actions are bordering on harassment," she said. "I understand (the newspaper's) need to report the news, and the more exciting the better, but asking the district to pay the paper's $12,000 in legal fees when we won the suit is going overboard."
The newspaper offered to dismiss claims against the School Board in exchange for payment of its attorney's fees and a pledge to be specific in announcing future executive sessions, including a requirement that the board would automatically turn over audiotapes if it did not meet the specificity agreement. The School Board rejected the newspaper's offer.
The newspaper also has req-uested and received all School Board meeting agendas and minutes from the past two years to review how the board typically has announced executive sessions. The newspaper was billed $50 for electronic copies of the minutes and agendas.
The newspaper now has 40 days to appeal Ossola's ruling.
"We still believe strongly in our case and must now decide whether to pursue an appeal," Larsen said. "Once that decision is made, we will announce it."
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